Emotional Health · Health

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: Our Grown Children Still Need Us

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


2204277278_cbf43f4146_zPhoto by David Goehring via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last week, someone wrote asking about her niece, a working woman with a demanding career who was struggling with child care problems. Since her niece has no family nearby her aunt felt that both her husband and her employer could be doing more to help, and I agreed. I also suggested that this is a nationwide dilemma as more and more families at all income levels have both parents in the workforce. And though many women work as a matter of choice, it is not really a choice anymore, but a necessity.

It has become increasingly difficult for a family to achieve the “American dream” on one paycheck. I would include in the dream scenario owning your own home, sending your kids to adequate schools, and seeing them through enough education so that they in turn can get good enough jobs to support their own families. For many middle-class families this plan breaks down at the earliest steps. Finding affordable housing near high-paying jobs is difficult, and adequate public schooling is becoming more and more rare. The cost of college is increasing beyond the reach of even wealthy families, yet good jobs seem to be unattainable without a college degree.

But American culture also demands independence. The further a family is from their immigrant roots, the more likely they are to be steeped in the ideal that we must make it on our own, and as soon as possible, live apart from our parents. This is a cultural ideal, particular to the United States, but psychologists have played a part in advancing it insofar as they promote separation and individuation as pillars of mental health and maturity. Yet, as the media have been reporting for the past few years, more and more college grads have had difficultly striking out on their own, with the twin obstacles of fewer good jobs and the burden of repaying loans. Many are finding themselves living back at home after college. Now, The New York Times reports, financial support to grown children is going beyond the years when they are just getting established–they need help when they are well into the years traditionally seen as when you should be free of your parents’ help. 

Many older people, nearing or at retirement age, are finding themselves helping out their children who have families of their own and who are having difficulties making ends meet. Often these are people who, having put money away for their own retirement, see that their children are struggling and decide to divert their savings in the direction of their kids. According to The Times:

“Some adult children aren’t making enough money,” said Netiva Heard, a certified debt counselor at MNH Credit Solutions in Chicago. “So parents are taking over certain bills like credit cards, cellphones and rent.”

Many parents justify this decision, reasoning that their children and grandchildren need the money now. The Times, however, echoed the worries and conflicts experienced by many who hold fast to the idea that all parties must remain independent:

Parents, of course, want the best for their children from the moment they are born and are used to doing everything they can to help them. Continuing that support into adulthood has spread, experts say, largely because the economy of the last decade has fallen short in generating good job opportunities for their millennial children.

“But the last thing you want is for your kids to end up taking care of you financially,” Ms. Heard said. “And, anyway, kids can learn from their own money struggles.”

This, of course, is a refrain one hears over and over. Your kids should never have to wind up helping you, and therefore you should not be helping them, but instead be saving your money so you can be “independent.” But one woman The Times quotes says she felt a sense of duty to help out her grandchildren. “I didn’t want them to have a bad life,” she said, adding that they are now flourishing.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Social Security and other social “safety nets,” to help older adults avoid being dependent on their children, and thank god he did. What did people do before that? Many more lived in poverty, and family structures were quite different. The French economist Thomas Picketty, whose 2014 book Capital in the 21st Century attracted a great deal of well-deserved attention worldwide, makes the point that in the latter half of the 20th century, in which the middle class flourished and the average man could achieve the kind of economic success seen in the post-war decades, was the anomaly and not the rule. For most of human history, whether or not we like it, wealth has been controlled by the 1% (or less) and the current swing back in that direction is more of a return to business as usual.

Throughout history, families and clans have banded together and shared their wealth, and human “capital.” So, for example, the grandparents who are giving some of their retirement income so their grandchildren can flourish are not coming up with a crazy new idea but returning to age-old customs. In another article last week, The New York Times reported on the trend of older adults who instead of retiring to Florida, are moving to New York City:

Grandparents are flocking to cities precisely because their adult children need them,” said Van C. Tran, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University. “The younger generation are working more hours than ever before, so they desperately need their parents to be around,” he said. “This is why the help that the grandparents provide is so crucial. I think we’re in a very interesting cultural norm-shifting moment because this was not expected or acceptable even a generation ago.”

There’s no question that these two phenomena are related, and perhaps they should be seen as part of an overall shift toward a need for greater interfamilial connectedness. There are many social and economic problems that might be improved if we not only accepted this need, but also endorsed it.

People on the lower socioeconomic rungs of the ladder, of course, accept this out of need. Many children are raised with the help of extended family and resources are shared because they have to be. More and more of the rest of the population may be faced with similar needs. What if explicit arrangements could be made to allow for it?

For example, the retirees who are giving up their cash because their grandchildren need it now may be left in a bind later, but what is wrong with the family being upfront about making a plan that might work for everyone in the long run? Perhaps they would (and should be) willing to take some responsibility for grandma in her later years, when, because of the help she has given them now, they will be more established. Perhaps the siblings as a group can get together to work out a plan. With the number of baby boomers reaching retirement age, there may be merit in proposing a tax deduction for children of retired parents who have them live with them.

With the economy the way it is, for the foreseeable future, we may have to change the way we see ourselves in relation to others. In the United States, the giving or receiving of help (“free stuff”) has a particularly bad reputation. There are times when it’s OK to get it, (when you inherit, for example) and times when it’s very much not OK. The norm that we have lived with, in middle-class America, at least, is that the ideal is for each family unit to have its own dwelling, along with all the other financial, social, and environmental implications involved in that arrangement. Consider the benefit to all three factors if people weren’t so scattered during the holidays, for example. The environmentally disastrous, usuriously expensive, harrowingly crowded travel required to have a family holiday together would be a thing of the past.

But customs are changing, and while independence is a fine ideal, there is a thin line between independence and isolation. A true adult, while reaching a level of psychological maturity that includes psychic independence, also maintains flexibility, and these are times that call for both. If you have appropriate psychological “distance” from your parents, you are not threatened by physical closeness to them (even if there aren’t still annoyances, conflicts, etc.). Meanwhile, on the other side, parents need to judge when their help is useful and necessary versus a potential “crutch” that may lead to an unhealthy dependence. But remember that crutches are usually necessary and lending a hand at the right time is seldom a bad thing.

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